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Uganda: Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest

It was an early start as we had to be at the start of the gorilla trekking trail at 8 am and it was over an hour to drive there from Lake Muhele. We were also unsure of the state of the roads, which were unpaved, from the previous night’s storms. So, after a quick breakfast, we were off, packed lunch in hand. The reason is that you might be in the forest tracking gorillas for up to 6 hours. The way it works is that you have an hour with the gorillas you find however long it takes you to find them.

This remote, mountainous part of Uganda shares an ecosystem with Rwanda and the DRC which is home to the remaining 1000 or so mountain gorillas still living in the wild. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to a good number of these.

When we arrived at Bwindi there were about 100 people waiting for their trek. Obviously, mountain gorillas are a big draw to Uganda, it was for us! Who knows how long these beautiful cousins of ours will be with us? It is not cheap to undertake a gorilla trek – the trekking permits run out at $600 per person. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The checking-in process was laborious, as seemed to be the case everywhere we visited in Uganda. All the drivers collected the passports of the visitors and passed them to one park ranger, who handed them to another, who handed them to another. The final ranger hand-wrote the information into a large hardback notebook. I had to wonder what they did with all the data they collected – not for liability cover I am sure. All of this took a long time, so to occupy the visitors some ladies from the local village performed some traditional songs and dances for us – which were highly energetic and all done without the aid of sports bras. After this ‘show’, which was a fundraiser for their community efforts, we had our briefing from another ranger and were then broken out into groups of nine.

We knew this would be a difficult trek over steep and possibly slippery ground that would be densely vegetated. As best we could we dressed appropriately, covered head to toe, and with our walking poles. We expected to spend a lot of time on our arses.

Our ranger introduced himself as Benjamin and gave us a rundown of what to expect. He asked whether anyone needed a porter to carry their bags or help them navigate the terrain. Our instinct was to say no, not out of bravado, but because it felt demeaning in some way. Yet for these people, it is their job and source of income. So we said yes. Another elderly American man, visiting with his daughter (something felt a little odd in their relationship), said he did need any help. In the end, about half of us agreed to have porters. Our porter was Justine, a slight young lady – but we’d already seen how strong Ugandan women are. They are not afraid of physical work.

So, off we went. The first part of our trek was along well-worn tracks, but already the American man was having to be helped by someone else’s porter to negotiate some of the rocket sections of the trail. About 10 minutes in Benjamin took a call. Every morning before the visitors arrive at Bwindi teams of rangers head out into the rainforest to track the family groups of gorillas. They relay this info back to the rangers with visitor groups. The call had taken was from the trackers telling him a group was near us and coming our way. We were so excited.

About 10-minutes we were told to leave our walking poles and put on our face masks (apes can catch Covid). Next minute we were hacking our way through the forest heading down near vertical slopes. Both scary and exciting. And we were suddenly there. We had been told that we were to get no nearer than 10 metres from the gorillas, but we found ourselves no more than 3 to 4 metres away from a juvenile and a huge Silverback. Normally, this would be very dangerous, but a number of family groups in Bwindi have become used to human visitors. I had for a long time dreamt of this moment, but I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was several minutes before these two moved out. We followed with the help of our trackers. It was arduous and physical work to keep up with the gorillas. Karen was helped numerous times by the rangers and porters going up the vertiginous slopes of the deep gully we were in. More than once she was unceremoniously helped by a push-up on the arse. It was tough going – but so worth it. Finally, we caught up with the gorillas. The Silverback had stopped for a snack and was happily munching away as we annoying tourists gawped in amazement. Close by was a female gorilla and her baby. She was very attentive as he firmly hung on to her. Eventually, the baby decided it was time to learn the ropes of arboreal living and went off exploring the trees – not going too far away from mum. We patiently watched for seemingly endless minutes and suddenly they were off into the depths of the undergrowth heading into the gully below. Again, our trackers went off and in pursuit. Our time with the gorillas was nearing an end but some of our group followed the trackers down the slope. It looked like getting down was really hard and getting up even harder. So, a group of us stayed behind. 10-minutes later our time was up, and we had to head back. It had been the most incredible experience. Of course, getting down had been hard so reaching the top was challenging. The pain in the arse American, who didn’t need a porter, found he did … and rudely used everyone else’s (and didn’t tip them at the end). As we left the gorillas, we said goodbye to the trackers. Without them, we’d never have been able to find the gorillas or track them through the forest without their deft use of machetes

A large silverback mountain gorilla - Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
A large silverback mountain gorilla
A juvenile mountain gorilla at Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
A juvenile mountain gorilla
Not sure what this! - A curious mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
Not sure what this!
The silverback just resting up before moving on in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
The silverback just resting up before moving on
A baby mountain gorilla in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
A baby gorilla

In summary …

Tracking the gorillas in Bwindi is expensive and can be physically challenging, but it was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives and if you can manage it financially and physically you must do it!

About Bwindi Impenetrable Rain Forest

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is thought to be one of the most biologically diverse forests in Africa and one of the oldest dating back to over 25,000 years ago.

On the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift Valley, the rainforest is attractively swathed over steep ridges and valleys rising up to an altitude of 2,600 m. The forest used to stretch down to the Virunga Mountains on the Rwandan border but this huge tract of the forest was broken up about 500 years ago when agricultural people moved into the area.

More than half the world’s population of mountain gorillas reside within Bwindi and these are the main focus of visitors. However, there are also healthy populations of chimpanzees, L’Hoest’s monkey, red-tailed monkey and colobus as well as five species of duiker and bushbuck. A small population of forest elephants also live within the forest and although the animals themselves are rarely seen, the tell-tale signs of their presence are often encountered.

Bwindi is also home to around 350 bird species of which 23 are endemic to the Albertine Rift and at least 14 are found nowhere else in Uganda.

Planning your visit to Bwindi

Bwindi is located in the south-western part of Uganda with approximately 7 h 35 min (463.7 Km) via Masaka Road. from Kampala .The easiest means of transport to Bwindi is by road.

getting there By car

Bwindi forest can be accessed from Queen Elizabeth National Park to the northern just 2 to 3 hours drive, from Kampala through Mbarara about 6 to 8 hours drive or from Kabale town to the south just 1 to 2 hours. These roads then converge at Butogota, just 17 kilometres from the Buhoma entrance gate. A 4×4 vehicle is needed through the rainy months.

getting there By Bus

A daily bus service leaves Kampala for Butogota via Rukungiri and Kihiihi.

By Air

Travellers can choose to fly from Entebbe or from Kampala at Kajansi airfield to the up to date tarmac airstrip found at Kisoro. Additionally Planes may as well be chartered to the Savannah or the grass Kayonza airstrips.

Bwindi is actually well served by 3 airfields at Kihiihi plus Kayonza for the northern area in addition to Nyakabande found in Kisoro for people going to track mountain gorillas within the southern area (Mishaya, Nshongi plus Nkuringo).

Cost of visiting

To visit the gorillas in Bwindi you will need a tracking permit, which costs $700. There are only 152 permits issued each day, so you will need to get your permits in advance. Bwindi has 18 habituated gorilla families, who have been exposed to humans so accept their presence, which is visited by a group of a maximum of 8 people per day for 1 hour. 

In Rwanda, the cost of a trekking permit is $1500 and in the Democratic Republic of Congo it is $450 – but this comes with security risks in the trouble-torn DRC.

Being prepared

How long it takes to find your assigned gorilla group is a bit of a lottery. We were very lucky, it only took us 20 minutes, but you could equally be trekking for 3 hours! This a mountainous area, so the trails can be steep and challenging – it is worth paying for a porter to carry your bags (this is their only income in most cases). Once you find the gorillas you are likely to be travelling through the virgin rainforest with a tracker leading the way, hacking through the brush with a machete. The going is physical and often you will be clinging onto the sides of steep slopes, grabbing anything to hand. It was not easy – so think twice if you are not very mobile before taking a gorilla tracking tour.

Here are some thoughts on what to take with you

  1. Good walking shoes – you will need these as it could be slippery and wet on the trails and mountainside
  2. A raincoat as it could rain in this mountainous area
  3. A camera
  4. Don’t take walking sticks, you will not be able to use them when you really need them!
  5. Insect repellent
  6. Water
  7. A packed lunch
  8. A backpack to put the above in

 

Best time to visit Bwindi

The best time to visit Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is between June and August, and then again in December through to February. These are the driest months, with the best chance of sunny skies and clear days perfect for wildlife viewing, although showers are always possible.

Lake Mulehe Safari Lodge

There are many lodges and places to stay around Bwindi National Park. We were booked into the Lake Mulehe Safari Lodge. The lodge offers en-suite chalets with a large comfortable bedroom. The lodge chalets have a balcony that looks out across a landscaped area down to Lake Mulehe. The views were amazing.

The drinks here are very reasonable. Whilst we are vegan usually we decided that in Africa it would be almost impossible to stick to a strict vegan diet for our 6-month tour. Ihamba had a vegetarian option at meal times – which was very good (we had a lot of Indian-style dishes!)

The lodge is small and intimate so you will not feel overcrowded here. The lodge is one open-plan space with a dining area which extends outside to a small deck. If the weather is good you should try and get you meals served out there!

You can get wi-fi (which as you might expect is not great – no streaming Netflix here!) in the Lodge building but not in the chalets.

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